Immersive Art Experience At Southampton Arts Center Will Evoke A Very Literal Sense Of Place - 27 East

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Immersive Art Experience At Southampton Arts Center Will Evoke A Very Literal Sense Of Place

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Artist Francisco Alvarado-Juárez among some of the 5,000 paper bags that make up part of“Light of the Ocean” at the Southampton Arts Center.      DANA SHAW

Artist Francisco Alvarado-Juárez among some of the 5,000 paper bags that make up part of“Light of the Ocean” at the Southampton Arts Center. DANA SHAW

Artist Francisco Alvarado-Juárez among some of the 5,000 paper bags that make up part of“Light of the Ocean” at the Southampton Arts Center.      DANA SHAW

Artist Francisco Alvarado-Juárez among some of the 5,000 paper bags that make up part of“Light of the Ocean” at the Southampton Arts Center. DANA SHAW

“Light of the Ocean” by New York City-based artist Francisco Alvarado-Juárez opens on Friday, November 2 at the Southampton Arts Center.  DANA SHAW

“Light of the Ocean” by New York City-based artist Francisco Alvarado-Juárez opens on Friday, November 2 at the Southampton Arts Center. DANA SHAW

“Light of the Ocean” by New York City-based artist Francisco Alvarado-Juárez opens on Friday, November 2 at the Southampton Arts Center.  DANA SHAW

“Light of the Ocean” by New York City-based artist Francisco Alvarado-Juárez opens on Friday, November 2 at the Southampton Arts Center. DANA SHAW

Artist Francisco Alvarado-JuĂĄrez at work at the Southampton Arts Center.      DANA SHAW

Artist Francisco Alvarado-JuĂĄrez at work at the Southampton Arts Center. DANA SHAW

Artist Francisco Alvarado-JuĂĄrez at work at the Southampton Arts Center. DANA SHAW

Artist Francisco Alvarado-JuĂĄrez at work at the Southampton Arts Center. DANA SHAW

author on Oct 29, 2018

Over the course of the past week or so, a major transformation has been underway at the Southampton Arts Center. Empty galleries and white walls have given way to a magical and colorful world, thanks to 5,000 paper bags, a cadre of volunteers—and one visionary artist.

When “Light of the Ocean” by New York City-based artist Francisco Alvarado-Juárez opens on Friday, November 2, it will usher visitors through an immersive art experience designed to mimic a day at the beach, literally.

Those thousands of utilitarian brown paper grocery bags, each brightly painted and cut to resemble waving grasses and fronds, will be placed in bunches on the floor and attached to nearly every wall surface available. Peeking through in spots, like a clownfish hiding in a sea anemone, visitors will find several of Mr. Alvarado-Juárez’s colorful paintings of butterflies, beetles and abstract forms, while video projections of marine life will be projected on the walls.

During a recent installation day visit, the Honduran-born Mr. Alvarado-Juárez and his artistic team were functioning like a well-oiled machine as they attached paper bags to walls with a single staple. It’s a process that he has honed through the creation of similar exhibits in places across the country and around the world. After each show, the bags are removed from the walls and floor, carefully folded, neatly stacked and stored for the next installation.

“The show is about the problem of pollution, preserving the environment and recycling—these bags have gone to Latin America, Europe and the U.S.,” Mr. Alvarado-Juárez said. “That’s recycling on a grand scale.”

It is indeed, and, ironically, Mr. Alvarado-Juárez’s very first show using grocery bags took place not far from the East End in 1992, at the Islip Art Museum. While that show was also sea-themed, he admits it was nothing on the scale of the Southampton Arts Center show. For one thing, instead of 5,000 bags, that show utilized just 800 bags, 600 of which are still around, noted the artist.

“Volume is key,” admitted Mr. Alvarado-Juárez. “I have done themes of the ocean before, but nothing like this.”

Even after only a few days of installation work at the arts center, the waving patterns of the paper bags really do evoke the feel of the underwater environment. But it’s not just the sights of the sea that Mr. Alvarado-Juárez is going for here. Ultimately, what makes each exhibit unique and specific to the locale in which it is created is the organic matter that he brings into the spaces in order to capture the full experience of an environment. That means flora and fauna of the Rocky Mountains for a show in Denver, for example, or the soil and species found in the prairie for a North Dakota exhibit.

Southampton is all about the beach, and instead of soil, Mr. Alvarado-Juárez is bringing in actual sand to create pathways and dunes throughout the Southampton Arts Center galleries. Seashells, horseshoe crab molts and other organic materials indigenous to the East End will be incorporated into the experience as well, with experts from Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program bringing in potted beach grasses to add to the illusion. Sounds of whales calling will complete the picture, and Cornell will have an extended display of its own in the back gallery space, making “Light of the Ocean” educational as well as fun.

“You’re encountering things that are real—sand here, dirt in North Dakota—and video projections of real things,” he explained. “Smells are a big part of it. You’re really seduced by the smell.”

Then, there are those grocery bags.

When you see them filling up a space, you realize that 5,000 is an impressive number of them. Up until a few years ago, all the paper bags were painted and hand-cut by Mr. Alvarado-Juárez himself. But after being asked to involve the community in his exhibit in Denver, he has since taken time to teach volunteers to do the work, as well as teachers who take the technique back to their students.

Among the local students taking part were those in Jennifer Charron’s and Pamela Collins’s classes in Southampton Intermediate School and the high school, as well as those in Keegan Bishop’s and Kathleen Dayton’s classes at Hampton Bays intermediate and high schools. Also lending a hand at the arts center have been more than 44 volunteers, including 13 elementary school students from The Watermill Center’s Young Artist Residency Project, led by Andrea Cote, an artist and education program coordinator.

“I came here for six months to do workshops—one every month—to show them how to create bags and cut them,” Mr. Alvarado-Juárez said. “It takes a lot of skills to get it together. The kids went crazy. They contributed quite a bit to the installation.”

This exhibit represents something of a homecoming for Mr. Alvarado-Juárez, who lived on Long Island for five years and earned a degree—not in art, by the way—from Stony Brook University. His artistic career began with photography after he moved to New York City in the mid-1970s and expanded to painting upon his relocation to Washington, D.C., in the late 1970s.

“I taught myself to paint in D.C. by studying the history of art through the National Gallery and the Hirshhorn,” he explained. “Washington was very generous in my formative years. I went there as a photographer and had no idea I was going to be a painter.”

His big break came with a show organized by Walter Hopps at the Corcoran Gallery, where, for 36 hours, every and any artist who brought in a piece of work had it accepted.

“Joseph Hirshhorn bought my painting,” Mr. Alvarado-Juárez said. “I got instant recognition. That first painting became my first series.”

It’s been more than four decades since his art career took off, and Mr. Alvarado-Juárez has since taken part in more than 45 individual and 80 group exhibitions. His artwork is in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Everson Museum of Art, and Museo Pablo Serrano in Zaragoza, Spain. Through it all, the natural environment has remained an important and vital focus for the artist.

“The issues of nature and preservation started in my work in the late 1980s with paintings of animals,” Mr. Alvarado-Juárez said. “It’s never left.”

“Light of the Ocean” by Francisco Alvarado-Juárez opens with a free reception on Friday, November 2, from 5 to 7 p.m. The exhibition runs through December 31 at the Southampton Arts Center, 25 Jobs Lane, Southampton. For more information visit southamptonartscenter.org or call 631-283-0967. Special tours for school groups are available.

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